DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Voice of Culture

Written by: on February 14, 2014

Theology and culture – two seemingly incompatible fields at first glance, yet two voices that have much to learn from each other. In this whole examination of the relationship between theology and culture, it can almost appear as if we’re trying to mix oil and water, yet these two disciplines need to interact and find the right way of working together. Schreiter succinctly explains the importance of this dynamic relationship: “To ignore the resources of the professional theologian is to prefer ignorance over knowledge. But to allow the professional theologian to dominate the development of a local theology seems to introduce a new hegemony into often already oppressed communities…The theologian cannot create a theology in isolation from the community’s experience; but the community has need of the theologian’s knowledge to ground its own experience within the Christian traditions of faith.” [i] As Bevans correctly points out, Christians in Asia, Africa and Latin America are becoming increasingly convinced that traditional approaches to theology do not make sense within their own cultural patterns and thought forms. [ii] For example, how can one celebrate Communion in Muslim countries where the production of fermented drinks is forbidden? How does one understand references to Jesus as the Bread of Life in countries where bread is hardly known or appreciated? Or how does one perform the sacrament of Baptism in countries where pouring water on a woman’s head is equivalent to cursing her with infertility? As these issues show, we most certainly need to grapple with these theological issues that arise from differences in culture. However, while this is most certainly correct, we must be very careful that we do not allow the voices of culture and society to rewrite the gospel in a way that simply makes it more acceptable or palatable. While it is absolutely true that there is a need to carefully consider cultural behaviours and customs that become confused over certain aspects of Biblical teaching, we must also be careful that we don’t fall into the same trap that some first century teachers and leaders did by creating another gospel, something that Paul had to address on not a few occasions. We must be very careful that we consider and interpret culture within theological boundaries and not vice versa. This whole topic takes me back to my early years of becoming a Christian in my late teens and the counter-cultural problems I suddenly faced when God called me to know Him and as a result, radically change my lifestyle. When I came to faith, there was no one else in my life that I knew who was a Christian, and some of my nearest and dearest took offence. My then-boyfriend’s father mocked me because I became devoted to God and wouldn’t sleep with his son, but there was no way I was about to change my new convictions to keep him happy and receive his acceptance. When my own dad took offence over my decision to not drink alcohol or sleep with my boyfriend, thus rejecting his way of life, he threw me out making me homeless, to force me to follow his way. I had a choice to make: either I made decisions that kept the people around me happy and free from confusion, or I followed God’s ways without compromise. To me the decision was simple. I had seen what my culture had to offer, had grown up around pubs, seen some of my dad’s friends die from alcohol-related issues and I wasn’t about to go down the same way. I think of a story I read recently of a young Muslim woman who came to know Christ. When her brother discovered her new-found faith in Jesus, he imprisoned her in her bedroom while her family made their judgement about her fate. She suspected that her faith in Christ would probably cost her her life, and sadly, she was correct. She was killed in the most horrific way at the hands of her own brother. Sometimes we don’t have to go beyond our own doorstep to find a counter-culture experience with very different standards and expectations. However, as I learned early on, although the voice of culture may be strong, it doesn’t necessarily mean its God’s way. As we carefully and sensitively work with cultural issues, we must be very careful that we do not step outside of what God reveals to be His will. We must learn how to interpret the timeless truths of Scripture within our culture, finding the right balance. May God grant us the wisdom and love we need as we grapple with the needs and voice of culture.

[i] Robert J. Schreiter, “What is Local Theology?” in Constructing Local Theologies, 1-21, (New York: Orbis, 1985), 18.
[ii] Stephen Bevans, “Contextual Theology as Theological Imperative” in Models of Contextual Theology. 1-10. (Maryknoll New York: Orbis Press, 2002), 5.

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Liz Linssen

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